The heart-rate counter on the gym’s treadmill had climbed to 160 beats per minute and he was only jogging. Years ago he’d have gone at twice his current speed, despite a two-pack a day cigarette habit.
His flagging speed was one way to measure the slow tick of years, but his default method was the growth of his child. A newborn spitting stains on his shirt; a toddler spellbound by a story; a pre-schooler splashing in the pool; a quiet reader sampling comics; a teen learning to flirt; a high school grad learning to drink; an angry young woman fighting her demons; an adult with a career job too busy to call.
When she was three they’d gone to the local gym together, he to exercise, she to daycare. He was in his early 40s at that point, still able to match his old high school speed, whooshing by the middle-aged office workers, three abreast and talking. The track ran around the gym about 30 feet above the floor. Runners could look down and ogle the girls playing volleyball or the strutting men lifting weights. He even saw his daughter once, wandering with a herd of pre-schoolers, chivvied along by a teacher.
“Molly!” he called from the overhead track. She stopped and peered in every direction but his. “Oh Molly!” he sang out again. A teacher pointed up at him. She waved, not surprised to find him watching her. Of course he was watching her. That was the purpose of his life as far as she was concerned.
Now that girl was 30 and those middle aged runners were whooshing past him, or at least they would be if he hadn’t forsaken the track for the stationary treadmills at the local fitness centre. The woman pounding away next to him maintained a steady gait, absorbed by the music in her headphones. He stole a look at her LED display. Over 8 mph. Much faster than he could go. Suddenly he was tired.
But he was experienced at managing his mood and had developed a work-around for such situations. He adjusted his glasses and peered over his music stand at the symphony orchestra assembled before him. Picking up his baton, he counted the musicians into his latest composition, Piano Concerto in D. The audience was rapt with attention, especially his co-workers, the lovely Charmaine among them. He had never told her about his musical endeavours and she was bug-eyed with admiration. “Just a hobby,” he would tell her with suitable modesty over a drink that evening. Borne aloft by his fantasy, he increased the speed of the treadmill to 5 mph. Soon the concerto was over.
“Let that be a lesson to you, Molly,” he told to his daughter via mental telepathy. “Learning to distract yourself is a life skill.”
He had been a dedicated life skill instructor and Molly an eager pupil at least until she was ten. He had taught her how to hammer a nail, change a quarter into dimes and nickels and steer the car from the passenger seat while he opened a cup of coffee.
The lessons continued in virtual form after his marriage broke up and his wife and daughter moved to Toronto. In his mind he taught Molly how to paddle a canoe, land a Cessna 150, write a MySQL query, set up lighting for a product shot and write a newspaper lede.
Every few months he flew to Toronto. He took her skating and then to the library where she developed a taste for science fiction. When she was older they played snooker in a bar and he let her sip from his glass of wine. He told her she was pretty and obviously smart despite her poor marks in school. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t run as fast as her friends, he said. She had asthma. It was like carrying a 20-pound weight.
By the time Molly was 13 the Internet was cutting into his business as a print designer. There were fewer visits to Toronto. He bought her a cellphone. She would call late into the evening with specific questions: “How do you erase your history from the computer? What do you do for a bleeding tooth? Do I have to have high marks for art school? How do I block this old guy who keeps phoning me?
She was on the same phone plan 20 years later and he was still paying the bill. But the phone calls weren’t the same. She was bored with him and he was lonely.
And his mind wandered, with nearly lethal results one rainy night.
He was driving home from the pub, deep in a self-absorbed reverie when he heard an outraged shriek: “FUCK YOU!” He slammed on the brakes, but it was too late to stop. He’d already sailed through the intersection and the crosswalk. In the rear view mirror he saw a slim woman crouched over a pile of books she must have dropped while leaping out of his way. She began to pick them up, keeping her eyes on his car. She hadn’t been hurt, he could tell, but she had been frightened and was righteously angry.
Should he back up and apologize? Offer her a ride home? But that could backfire. She would be able to read the licence number of his car more easily. If she had a cell phone she could call the cops and he’d have to explain the beers he’d drunk at the pub.
He drove on.
Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! He swore at himself. What if he had hit her? He imagined his car smashing her pelvis and pitching her up onto the hood of his car crunching her face against the windshield before she slid off, smacking her head on the pavement, her smashed bones slicing her flesh. If she didn’t die of internal bleeding she’d face a lifetime of pain and mental stress. She would have hated him, but not as much as he hated himself right then.
He reached his apartment building and pulled into the parking lot. She had taught him another life skill: know when to quit.
He sold his car, emptied his bank account and flew to Toronto where he could live without a vehicle. Once he got situated he’d get acquainted with his daughter again.
The years had blessed him with a lanky frame and distinguished mop of white hair. He got a job in a restaurant that catered to business conferences. The food was microwaved and the staff were badly paid. He was ideally suited for the work, having no experience.
And he was good at it. He smiled at people. They listened to his menu advice. He felt important. He took on extra duties, organizing tables and getting meals ready on time. He hoped for a promotion.
He was changing coffee filters, back to the restaurant, when the group was ushered in. He grabbed his order pad and approached them. And then he stopped. Molly! Right there behind that blonde chick.
Reflexively he wheeled and headed back to the kitchen as if he’d forgotten something. “Derek, can you cover Table 5 for me? I’ll get that load of teenagers for you. They’ll never tip.”
“Nope. No can do.” Derek was a pimple faced moron but had two years’ experience and therefore outranked him.
“Come on,” he wheedled, “I can’t serve that table! I know one of those people– I don’t want her to know I work here. Please?”
Derek ignored him, busying himself with the coffee machine.
He couldn’t just walk out. Jobs were hard to find for men his age. How about a heart attack? No, Derek already knew his secret.
But he had a life skill for this kind of thing: think about the worst that could happen. He’d be embarrassed and so would Molly, but neither of them would die. He might even parlay their encounter into a drink later on. He’d just have to keep his held high and get through it.
He approached with his order pad, circling the table to stand behind Molly. The others were impatient and gave their orders quickly. Only Molly was still looking over the menu, like she had in the high chair 30 years earlier, dithering between the carrots and the peas.
Finally she looked up spearing him with a pair of blue-gray eyes. He noticed a tiny scar between them. He blanched and, with a theatrical clearing of his throat, dropped his head to his order pad. She caught on right away. “I’ll have the steak, medium rare please with roast potatoes.” Her voice was entirely neutral. All those child acting lessons finally paid off.
Weak with relief he headed for the kitchen to post his orders. He returned with coffee and juice, working his way around the table. careful to serve Molly in the middle, standing behind her and reaching around her right side as he’d been taught.
Molly was absorbed in conversation with an older woman. Her voice was confident and the woman seemed to respect her. He eavesdropped. They hadn’t talked in months. He wasn’t sure what her new job was and what she was interested in these days.
He was quickened by the stress and enjoyed playing the lively, entertaining waiter. He was full of anecdotes and little jokes, nodding and winking at his guests. All his guests but Molly.
At last the meal was over. He stood behind the cash register as they paid their bills, separately. Molly, thankfully, was last. He wanted to speak to her but she just handed him a company credit card. He ran it through the reader and handed the remote back. She added a 20 per cent tip, then handed the machine back without comment.
“Thank you,” he said, without thinking. A decent tip, even if it was his own kid. She hitched her briefcase back on her shoulder. Last chance.
He steeled himself: “Molly, how have you been?”
“Molly! It’s me! Your—. Sorry, thought you were somebody else.”
“No problem”. He watched her walk quickly towards the glass door to the sunlit street.
Where on earth had that scar come from? An accident? A malevolent boyfriend? Whatever the cause, she’d have told him, wouldn’t she? Certainly her mother would have said something, wouldn’t she?
“Thanks for coming,” he called out to her, “hope to see you again.”
The glass door to the street opened and for a second she was silhouetted by a flash of sunlight. She waved back at him. He thought of that little girl on the gym floor.
Surely she’d come back, wouldn’t she?